For years, Iceland was just a landmass you flew over en route to Europe proper. Blame those sneaky Vikings, who, according to legend, named Iceland as such in order to keep everyone else away. But the secret’s out. Here are 17 reasons Iceland will surpass even your most grandiose expectations.
1. It might be as close as you can get to feeling like you’re on another planet…for now.
With desolate fields of lava rocks covered in rolling, green lichens, Iceland’s stark beauty surpasses the views you expect to see on this planet. With more than 100 volcanoes and a landscape covered in bizarre rock formations and basalt pillars — not to mention no high-rise buildings or dense urban clusters outside of Reykjavik to bring you back to Earth — sometimes gravity is the only reminder you took an airplane and not a rocket ship to get here.
2. And speaking of planes…you can fly here for free.
It’s one of travel’s best kept secrets that IcelandAir offers uber-cheap fares to Europe (they beat Air Canada from Toronto to Frankfurt by about $100 round-trip on one random date we plugged in), with free stopovers in Iceland on the way there or back. Essentially that’s two vacations for the price of one flight. With recently launched routes from Vancouver and Edmonton, as well as flights from Toronto and Halifax, it’s an easy (and fairly quick) trip from anywhere in Canada.
3. They won’t make you sign a waiver.
Brilliant Tours offers a breath-stealing, white-knuckling ATV tour near Svinadalur in West Iceland, no waiver required. You’ll drive up the side of mountains, cross rivers and snow, and feel like you might kill yourself at any time. It’s awesomely exhilarating and definitely not a tour for wimps — but those spectacular views are even more beautiful when you feel like you’ve defied death to see them. ($166 per person for a two-and-a-half-hour tour)
4. More hours to enjoy.
Located just below the Arctic Circle, Iceland doesn’t get dark during the summer. On the summer solstice, the sun dips just below the horizon around midnight and rises again before 3 a.m., but daylight never truly fades.
5. It’s surprisingly easy to eat local.
The chilly climate and lack of sunlight all winter long might lead you to assume there’s no such thing as produce, but those Icelandic are an enterprising folk: One of the major uses of all of Iceland’s geothermal energy is an extensive network of greenhouses, meaning produce like tomatoes, strawberries and even pineapples are all local. Add to that great seafood and exceptional lamb and you’ve got the makings of a surprising locavore food scene. You’ll find some of the best at Hotel Budir, a magical, remote inn on a gorgeous peninsula about a two-hour drive from Reykjavik.
6. You can dare your travel buddies to try the “single worst thing” Anthony Bourdain has ever tasted.
It’s not all good though. Anthony Bourdain called hakarl — shark meat that has been fermented and dried for four to five months — “the single worst thing I’ve ever put in my mouth.” One whiff and you’ll understand why.
7. Views like this.
8. And this.
9. In fact, it’s virtually impossible to take a bad picture.
With layers upon layers in every landscape — blue waters, fields of black sand and rocks, green mountains and snow-capped glaciers — Iceland is a photographer’s dream. Even when it’s cloudy, the colourful architecture adds punches of contrast and in the summer months, endless days mean the “golden hour” stretches on…and on. And if you don’t like the light? The weather is guaranteed to change at least five times an hour.
10. Roadside Jacuzzi parties.
With geothermal pools dotted across the landscape, you can pull over to the side of the road and hot-tub the way Mother Nature intended. In West Iceland, visit Krosslaug, a hole no bigger than a Jacuzzi filled with water that’s naturally heated to 43°C, steps from the highway. Bring along a cooler filled with Viking beer and presto — instant hot tub party!
11. You can escape the crowds you’ll find everywhere else in Europe.
With a landmass of 103,000 square kilometres and a population of about 325,000, Iceland is the most sparsely populated country in Europe (not counting Greenland).
12. Museums that aren’t a snooze.
13. The first day of summer is an official holiday.
Grownups get the day off and kids play outside with beach toys on the “first day of summer.” Why’s that in quotes? Because summer’s start is celebrated on the first Thursday after April 18 (that’ll be the 23rd in 2015), when temperatures still hover just above the freezing mark. And you thought Canadians calling anything above 10 degrees Celsius “patio weather” was overly optimistic!
14. It’s politically progressive.
Iceland was the first country in the world to elect a female head of state and the first to have an openly gay prime minister. In Iceland, notions the rest of the world sees as advanced are simply NBD.
15. Icelandic humour is dark and delicious.
Icelandic humour mimics the winter weather: dark and bleak. If your sense of funny shuns the obvious and veers towards the black and absurd, you’ll find kindred spirits here. Experience it in its pure form at Frystiklefinn, an experimental theatre located inside a meat freezer in the tiny town of Rif, where Kári Viðarsson turns ancient Icelandic sagas into a woefully inappropriate (and laugh-out-loud hilarious) one-man act. ($28)
Called the huldufolk, or hidden folk, Icelandic folklore is full of legends about elves, malicious human-like creatures just a few centimetres high, who get particularly cranky when people mess with the environment. Nearly two-thirds of adult Icelanders reportedly believe in elves; last year, The Associated Press reported that the local “elf lobby” blocked construction of a new highway, claiming it turfed on elfin lands. The elf part may have been a ploy cooked up by environmental groups to protect an ancient lava field, but the protest pushed the Supreme Court of Iceland to put a halt on the project until the environmental and cultural impacts were properly assessed. You’ve gotta love a country that quite literally looks out for the little people.
17. They do sweaters the best.
Finally, a souvenir you’ll still love (and use) when you get home.